Does Marijuana Help Depression?

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Marijuana and depression may be linked in more ways than you know, but also not in the ways you think.

It’s always tricky untangling these things–the things that science exposes as helpful where society sees harm–but don’t worry, the DEA announced in August 2016 that they would be allowing additional licensing to research operations. This, combined with the data being generated in both recreational and medical markets across the world, is leading to what could be a deluge of much-needed information on every aspect of the marijuana plant.

Marijuana and Depression

That’s not to say there isn’t good information out there already. A quick search of marijuana and depression will yield hundreds of thousands of results, but I noticed that many of the results were either pandering to the pro-marijuana cause or the against marijuana coalition; therefore, they often lack a cohesive presentation of scientific evidence.

Indeed, even the doctors who prescribe medical marijuana have often been viewed as shady in practice. Key and Peele did a comedy sketch illustrating this exact point

The Endocannabinoid System

If you are wondering “does marijuana help depression,” it’s first necessary to understand a bit about how we humans experience the active compounds found in cannabis, called “cannabinoids.” The endocannabinoid system–literally meaning “internal cannabinoid system”–is of great importance when trying to understand the link between marijuana and depression.

Though the endocannabinoid system is a collection of brain chemicals, acting in a different capacity within each organ, tissue, or cell (and even on the subcellular level!), the overall effect of the endocannabinoid system is to promote homeostasis. Homeostasis is defined as a state of internal consistency regardless of external inconsistency. Oddly enough, that is similar to sort of consistency that therapy aims to provide.

Marijuana and depression can, therefore, be loosely linked via the endocannabinoid system, though this obviously is missing the how when looking to answer “does marijuana help depression”. Thus far research on the endocannabinoid system has revealed three things:

How the body responds when endocannabinoid levels are low

A major place of interest in understanding how marijuana and depression–as well as all the other illnesses, diseases, and symptoms cannabis users claim relief from–actually work towards health goals come from the idea that a deficiency of the endocannabinoid system (called CEDS) can lead to higher stress, poor regulation of sleep, lowered immune function, increased inflammation, and exacerbation of anxiety.

While these factors by themselves do not indicate whether someone deals with depression, I am sure you can agree that any one of the effects of low endocannabinoid levels can certainly agitate someone who struggles with mental health.

The Bliss Molecule

It often surprises people when they find out that we don’t know most things about how drugs actually work. Just as we think we know what is happening, nature reveals an additional layer–both more expressive of information and ultimately more confusing.

It’s hard to make nature better (even if this means personal nature, human nature) when you don’t understand it.

So, does marijuana help with depression?

To answer this, it’s important to mention one of the neurotransmitters produced by the endocannabinoid system: Anandamide. If marijuana and depression are linked, the way that anandamide encourages neurogenesis (creation of nerve paths in the brain) and neural plasticity (adaptability of the new nerve pathways) can certainly shed some light on how.

In Hinduism, Ananda means ‘bliss’ and it is this ancient pretense that we derive the name ‘the bliss molecule.” Ever heard chocolate described as blissful? Ever heard it can help your mood? Dark chocolate has been found to be rich in anandamide. Just some facts for the fans.

Endocannabinoids and Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a messenger of nerve impulses that drives many factors related to the expression of behaviors, emotions, and well-being. If we recall that the endocannabinoid system functions to promote homeostasis, it should be clear that there is an interaction between serotonin and cannabinoids.

Answering the question does marijuana help depression isn’t done by just thinking about how you feel after using cannabis. As we have seen, there is a complex molecular system wired into all mammalian life that regulates cannabinoids.

While there are 14 identified types of serotonin receptor in the human body, endocannabinoids only have two. Don’t let that mislead you, however, as it is the cannabinoids that inhibit (prevent) serotonin receptors from producing nausea, pain, and pro-inflammatory messages to cope with external factors as a promotion of homeostasis.

Marijuana and depression are linked by more than the two internal systems mentioned above, but the interest in anandamide’s link to serotonin receptor sites has lead researchers to better understand how cannabis can assist in people with stress disorders and anxiety; two mental health issues of themselves that run concurrently with depression.

Through neurogenesis, the endocannabinoid system can construct itself in a way that can inhibit fight or flight responses from serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, limiting anxiety and, by way of neuroplasticity, can help to form a positive behavioral relationship with the negative stimulus. In doing so, reduction of depressive symptoms can be expected.

As you can tell, marijuana and depression are linked to some degree at even the molecular level. To answer ‘does marijuana help depression’ it is helpful to first understand the biochemical nature of the substance. While the physical act of using cannabis itself may produce mixed results for a wide variety of symptoms, ailments, and diseases, the processes hardwired into our body to regulate homeostasis often are closely related on a molecular level to those of the cannabinoids found in marijuana.

This indicates at the most basic level that cannabinoids found in marijuana and depression are linked, as if you are depressed, you are not experiencing homeostasis.

(Note: Please do not take this blog as medical advice. Consult your doctor if you are feeling depressed. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255)